Where Do We Go From Here? 2004 (Part IV: Starting Pitchers)

What we know: Three members of the second-half starting rotation are free agents. Mike Hampton needs surgery. John Smoltz wants to start.

What we don’t know: What’s really wrong with Horacio Ramirez’s shoulder. If Smoltz can hold up as a starter, and if the Braves are even interested in trying. What the plans are for Juan Cruz and Jose Capellan. Pretty much anything else.

Right now, there is only one sure thing in the starting rotation, John Thomson. Thomson came on late in the season, and his injury (and the subsequent stretching of the bullpen) was a key to the Braves’ NLDS loss. I’m not saying they would have won if he’d been healthy, but they’d have had a better shot. Thomson is not an ace, not for a playoff-caliber rotation, but he’s a solid number two or a good number three.

Hampton also came on late, and was the Braves’ second-best pitcher in the NLDS nightmare, the only one to make a good start. However, his knee is in bad shape. He will have surgery, and hopefully would be able to pitch full-strength in the spring. It should be recalled that he came on late in 2003 as well, only to start 2004 horribly.

Russ Ortiz will probably be gone. He was terrible down the stretch this year and made a poor start in the NLDS only to be bailed out by the offense and bullpen. Always miscast as an ace, Ortiz will find his true calling as an overpaid big-market mid-rotation starter. I covered Wright and Byrd pretty extensively in the free agents entry; the Braves probably want both back, but Wright only if the price is reasonable, and Byrd only if the price is much lower. There are a lot of pitchers with similar but better credentials to Wright on the free agent list (see below) so that might keep his price down.

Of the pitchers currently on the roster, there are a number that have starting experience who weren’t in the rotation at the end. Horacio Ramirez’s initial diagnosis made Bill James’ definition of tendinitis (“It hurts and we don’t know why.”) even more on target than usual. If you just want a wild guess, he’s got some sort of tear that doesn’t show up in MRIs because the swelling holds it in place. But that’s just a guess. If Ramirez is back, we’d get to see if he can continue to put up ERAs that a guy with his peripherals shouldn’t be able to. The Kirk Rueter comparison still holds, though Rueter no longer shows up on Ramirez’s top ten list. Both, however, had short seasons at age 24.

John Smoltz wants to start, but then he’s wanted to start for years now and the Braves have never even hinted at considering it. I wonder if they might now that they watched their best pitcher sit on his hands in the bullpen while the season washed away. It’s possible that the Braves acquired Chri*s R**tsm* so that he might move into the closer’s role this season and Smoltz to the rotation — or elsewhere, if things worked out that way. However, R**tsm*’s utter failure probably kills that, and someone else would have to close if Smoltz starts.

Speaking of R**tsm*, he has starting experience, and was only moved to the bullpen in 2003. He was actually a good starter, despite what you might have heard — or might think — in 2002; he was only 6-12, but the Reds were dreadful, and he had a 3.64 ERA, well below the league. He made three starts in 2003 — one good and one bad in Tiny American Ballpark, then one really bad one in Coors Field, and was sent to the pen. Classic Reds overreaction. It is my opinion that R**tsm* would be better served as a starter, despite the lack of a reliable offspeed pitch. He doesn’t get many strikeouts, but he has pretty good control and supposedly gets ground balls, though many of those seem to land in the upper deck somehow. He’d make a good middle-of-the-rotation starter. Probably somewhere else. (I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of the Sabermetric teams, like the Red Sox — he was originally drafted by them — take a flyer on him as a starter. The R**tsm*/Lowe similarities are eerie.)

Juan Cruz, like R**tsm*, has been haunted by a perception that he lacks the pitch variety to be a starter. All I know is that when he came up in 2001 the Cubs put him in the rotation and he went 3-1 with a 3.22 ERA, which normally would make a team consider him a building block of the future. Showing the judgment that the Cubs are famed for, they spent the next two years bouncing between the rotation, the bullpen, and Iowa; it’s no wonder that he was mediocre in 2002 and awful in 2003. I wanted the Braves to give Cruz a bigger role, but in retrospect putting him in that Earl Weaver long reliever spot, to get his bearings and to get Leo a chance to see him work, was the right thing to do. I expect he’ll get a bigger role in 2005, but that might be as a starter, as the new closer, or as a primary setup man.

Jose Capellan is considered the Braves’ top pitching prospect now. He has a great fastball for certain. However, he doesn’t have any changeup to speak of and his curveball — if curveball it is, it looks more like a slider to me — is only sporadically effective, and is sporadically up in the zone. On the other hand, he’s very young and only a couple years removed from surgery. I think he might be better off with a Smoltz-style fastball-slider-splitter repertoire than the fastball-curveball-changeup that the Braves seem to favor, but that’s Leo’s territory and he generally knows what he’s doing. I expect the Braves to give him a shot as a starter in spring, but I don’t think he’s ready for that yet. He might be better off in Richmond than in the pen. Remember the experience of Jason Marquis, who pitched just well enough to derail his career until traded to St. Louis.

There are some other candidates in the system. Dan Meyer looked good in a couple of innings as a callup and might be in the team’s plans, but I’m guessing falls behind Capellan. Still, where was Ramirez two years ago? Kyle Davies is behind the other two, but still a top prospect. There are lots of other guys, most of whom will probably wind up elsewhere; Brad would be the man to ask.

There are a number of starting pitchers of interest on the market. There are two Hall of Famers who are still effective pitchers, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez. It seems unlikely Atlanta would be a suitor for either, but you can never tell with Clemens and Martinez might slip through the cracks if the Sox and Yankees both turn elsewhere. Another top starter on the market is Brad Radke of Minnesota. Radke was 11-8 but with a good ERA for the Twins, and I’ve heard that the Braves have long had some interest in him.

Kevin Millwood was rumored to head back to Atlanta almost from the moment the Braves traded him. He wound up taking an arbitration offer from the Phillies last season, but that’s not likely to happen again. Millwood was 9-6, but his ERA was a career-worst 4.85, yielding his first ERA+ below 100. He suffered through injuries and a pitching coach he couldn’t relate to. He might take a lower salary to go home to Leo… Millwood’s top ten comps through Age 29 read like an honor roll of guys who suddenly fell apart. Jack McDowell! Pat Hentgen! Jaime Navarro! Doug Drabek! Ron Darling! Chan Ho Park! Of the ten, eight collapsed at about Millwood’s current age. Rick Sutcliffe survived, and we don’t know about Freddy Garcia yet. Bartolo Colon is still young enough to turn it around, but put up a 5 ERA last season.

Matt Clement has bad timing, or bad luck. If he’d gone into free agency with his records in 2002 (12-11) or 2003 (14-12) he’d likely have made more money than he will after going 9-13. However, he put up a better ERA this year (3.68) and struck out more than a man an inning; he would have struck out more than 200 and been among the league leaders but for a late season muscle strain, which probably also knocked the Cubs out of the playoffs. My guess is that Clement will be one of the best pitchers in this free agent class, and I’d love to get him.

Carl Pavano was one of the better pitchers in the NL this year, going 18-8 with a 3.00 ERA after several years of frustration and a slightly below-average 2003. Just in time for free agency! If you really think he’s turned it around, he’s the type of pitcher — good but not extreme strikeout numbers, good control — the Braves normally covet. If.

I’m intrigued by Jon Lieber, another of that type (Lieber had the fewest walks per nine in the AL this season) and one with a longer track record of success, though he had major surgery and missed 2003, and never has had a season like Pavano’s 2004. Lieber won 14 games this year, albeit for the Yankees, for whom almost anyone could put up a winning record. On the other hand, their terrible defense didn’t do him any favors. If he’s healthy, and the Yankees don’t bring him back, he’s a possibility.

The Braves are always rumored to be interested in Kristin Benson, and if she doesn’t re-sign with the Mets the Braves might make a play. I really don’t know what all the fuss is about, what with his three straight seasons of adjusted ERAs worse than the league and his record of mediocre strikeout and walk numbers. Benson left his best fastball on the operating table, and now is what he is; a back-of-the-rotation innings-eater with a girl’s name and a hot wife.

Chris Carpenter goes in the Lieber category of a guy who seems to have bounced back from major surgery and a missed 2003 season to be an effective starter in front of a great offense. Carpenter was 15-5 with a 3.46 ERA this year. I like him less than Lieber because (a) he did this in front of a great defensive team, (b) his walk numbers, while good, aren’t nearly as good as Lieber’s (though his strikeouts are a lot better) (c) he doesn’t have Lieber’s track record, and (d) he’s hurt again. Actually, that last might bring down his price to where he could be one of two pitchers brought in.

Carpenter’s teammate Matt Morris also won 15 games, but didn’t pitch at all well and had an ERA well above the league. He’s had two straight seasons of major decline and already had surgery once in 1999. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Morris return to prominence in a few years. I wouldn’t want the Braves to pay him to rehab, though.

Would Odalis Perez return to Atlanta? I don’t know; it depends upon how much he blames the Braves for his arm injury and how bad the blood is. Perez is clearly the best lefthanded starter on the market this year. His up-down career path led him to an up year headed into free agency; I think that the Dodgers will seek to keep him.

A few other names… David Wells is old and fat and annoying, and he can still pitch and I’d sign him to a one year deal with an option in about five seconds. Eric Milton is very overrated and all the people who wanted him on the All-Star team were very stupid. I wouldn’t sign Jose Lima if he was the last pitcher on the market and the next option was a guy out of A-ball. There are some other guys who look like solid enough rotation filler but I don’t see their value to the Braves. Al Leiter has a mutual option with the Mets and I think he’ll either stay there or retire and take a broadcasting job. (He’s good, isn’t he?)

A trade? Maybe. I don’t think there will be much of a market, to be honest. There are always Randy Johnson rumors, but it’s more likely that the Braves would be the third leg of a trade with the Yankees (providing prospects to Arizona and getting someone — Javier Vazquez? Hideki Matsui? — from New York) than to get the Big Unit. Ben Sheets looks like a fantasy, because I can’t imagine even the Brewers would be that stupid.

I mentioned this last season, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Mets shop Tom Glavine, and they might be willing to take on a lot of his salary. But the feelings about Glavine are still pretty poisonous, among fans anyway, and really he’s not a top of the rotation starter anymore.

Again, I’m sure Scheurholz will pull something off. He has a lot of options.

17 thoughts on “Where Do We Go From Here? 2004 (Part IV: Starting Pitchers)”

  1. I agree that Clement is the guy to go after. He’s the kind of power starter that the Braves have lacked, the kind that can make a difference in the postseason. He made 6 million last year . . . I wonder where he’ll fall in the off-season free agent pecking order?

  2. Once again, thanks Mac for delivering the analysis. Can’t thank you enough for the time you put in. I put a lot of thought into all the stuff you are writing, but you actually spend the time actually posting your thought process onto this site. I really appreciate this website where all genuine Braves fans can discuss about our favorite team.

    Jay, Clement is definitely a good choice. However, I am not sure whether our offense or our pitching will hold a higher priority this winter. Looking at our past winters, we never spent too much money on starting pitching except Maddux and Bryd. We got Ortiz and Hampton to replace Millwood and Glavine at a cheaper price. We were supposed to sign Byrd to replace Maddux, but Scheurholz lost the arbitration game with Boras. Therefore, I believe our focus this winter again will be the offense because I have my doubts whether Estrada, Thomas, Marrero and even Drew can repeat their success next season.

    Therefore, it seems not likely that we will spend $8M at least on Matt Clement (that’s my estimated minimum valuation on Clement). We would rather spend that $8M on Drew. I strongly believe we will sign Wright back. I also have a feeling that we will bring back Millwood because of the uncertainly around Rameriz, and I am sure Scheurholz has a lot of confident that Leo can put Millwood’s career back on track. This seems to be the type of risk that we usually take: a calculated risk with a good chance to succeed. Since we do Boras a favor for signing Millwood, we may have an easier time signing Drew.

  3. I like the idea of trying to swing Vazquez in a three-way deal with the Yankees, but only if the Yanks pick up most of the tab — but we all know they’re good for it, especially if it means they get Randy Johnson. Leo and Bobby know Vazquez about as well as any non-Brave pitcher, so I have no doubt they could fix his delivery problems. Signing Pavano or Clement in addition to that would be sweet — Pavano, Vazquez, Hampton, Thomson, and either Byrd for cheap, Ramirez if he’s healthy, or a kid with Smoltz closing looks pretty good to me. But even if we could make the money work, it’s probably too optimistic to hope for both Pavano and Vazquez.

    An advantage I think we have with Pavano is that he’s already cut a lot of potential teams from his list, including a bunch of teams that could potentially outbid us for him. His preference is to stay in Florida, but only if they get a stadium deal in place, and that doesn’t look like it’ll be happening. He says he doesn’t want to play in New York, which removes the Mets and Yanks, and wants to stay on the East Coast, which removes LA, Anaheim, Seattle, and Texas. Who’s left, besides us? Boston? Baltimore?

    This is a hard market to work in, because so much depends on how the negotiations with Drew go, who his replacement is if he doesn’t resign, and what the good pitchers are asking (and what they can expect to get). We’ve got enough pitching depth to not roll over if we don’t sign anyone (or just someone cheap, like Byrd at a discount or a project), so the right field question needs to be addressed first, which determines how much we have to splurge in pitching. I think realistically we’ll see Wright/Clement/Pavano/Vazquez, Hampton, Thomson, a kid or Ramirez, and a reclamation project like Millwood or Lowe.

    By the way, I think it says a lot about how good Leo Mazzone is that we can regularly talk about having reclamation projects in our rotation without panicking.

  4. Tanto, agree with your final assessment absolutely. Hey, you guys know that Beltran, Ordonez, Drew, and Beltre are all Boras’s clients? The guy pretty much controls the market this winter…

  5. I just don’t see the Braves landing Clement or Pavano. The reason being, there are going to be a lot of teams with more money to spend going after pitching this winter.

    The Cardinals will clear payroll by losing Morris. That’s $8 – $10 that they’ll spend on pitching.

    Baltimore reputedly (goodbye BJ, Cordova, Albert Belle’s contract, has $20 – $30 million to spend this offseason, according to baseball prospectus.

    The Yankees will be in the market for the starter, and the Red Sox will be there too, with Pedro’s $17 mil possibly getting divided among two guys.

    LA (Ventura, Odalis) will be going for a pitcher to replace Odalis, and with the new ownership in place they won’t be hamstrung at spending (like they were last year with Vlad).

    The ChiSox (freed salary in Koch & Maglio) need a pitcher, but with Magglio moving, they may concentrate on RF and go for a lesser pitcher.

    The Mariners have cleared salary with Olerud, Aurilla, Cirillo, Egdar & possibly Boone all off the books (but they might not spend it on a pitcher, depending on how they elect to rebuild their team.)

    The Rangers (no more Greer contract!) desperately need a pitcher, and depending on how they play Soriano, they may be in the FA market for one.

    Montreal/Washington (no more Cabrerra or Evert, possibly no more Nick Johnson), the Phillies ($10 mil freed with Millwood, possibly more if they don’t exercise Wagner’s option), Toronto (Delgado is off the books), Anahiem (Percival, Glaus & Halter are FAs), the Cubs (Nomar, Alou, Walker, Grudzielanek, Clement & Hundley), San Fran (Nen’s free agency frees up $8mil), and Minnesota (Salary cleared with Radke, Koskie and Menkweitz gone) all have money, and I mean $10 million plus, to spend, and all of them could use a pitcher. Heck, even Arizona has cleared a lot of salary (Mantei, Sexson, & Finley).

    I don’t think Clemens, Clement, Pavano, Martinez, and probably even Radke will get less than $9 million per (well, maybe Clemens), and I’ll go out on a limb and say 1 or 2 of them will get Bartolo Colon money.

    I think that us Braves fans need to be prepared for a signing like Benson or Millwood, or if we’re really lucky, Odalis or Radke. Regretably, I think we are not going to be in the play for the other guys.

    It actually could be an active free agent season for Mr. Boras.

  6. Let’s sign Clement and swing a trade for Tommy. That would make our rotation Hampton, Clement, Thomson, Tommy and H-Ram (assuming he gets healthy. If not, I wouldn’t mind resigning Byrd.)

    I like Clement a lot. I’d like to think Leo could refine him to being an elite level starter instead of the intermittently great pitcher he’s been the last couple years. We need a dominating hard-thrower like Smoltz and Millie used to be.

    I’d like to see Tommy back. I’m not a hata…it’s sickening to see him in a Mets uniform. Sickening…

  7. Toms son plays little league baseball at the same park with my son. Every year I donate a couple of my season tickets for the fund raiser auction. This year Tommy donated a game worn autographed *Mets* jersey and it just made me physically ill. I still have a copy of the book he wrote “None but the Braves”. I was bitter when I left but I think I could get over it if he came back.

  8. I think there’s a lot of wishful thinking going on here. The Braves haven’t gone after a significant free agent in years and they’re not likely to this year. I can’t see Millwood; he’s just a middle of the rotation starter in my opinion even with Leo. I see Cruz being given a shot at the rotation and maybe some second level reclamation project until Capellan is ready. IN all honesty, I would rather sacrifice this year in order to develop some of our own power pitching arms rather than bringing in another collection of junkballers who get lit up in the playoffs.

  9. Amazing analysis Mac. Really great. This is the rotation I imagine we will start with next year;

    Thomson
    Hampton
    Meyer
    Byrd/Ramirez
    Smoltz

    I think it would be great to get a low-ball deal in with someone like Odalis or Millwood, but I imagine Scheurholz will probably spend money on Drew before starters and just let Leo do his thing.

  10. I’ve been thinking about this all morning, and here are some other names to throw out there:

    Barry Zito — He’s a free agent after next year, and Oakland might want to move him, since he hasn’t been that great for the fast two years. I bet Leo could fix him, though, and he only made 3 million this year, although he is arbitration eligible. I’ve also heard that Erubiel Durazo is almost sure to be non-tendered or dealt. Maybe Meyer, Langerhans, and Jurries for Zito and, I don’t know, Byrnes (who I think is arbitration eligible)? Is Jurries a Moneyball-type player? I heard he can hit but he can’t field, which makes him a DH candidate for a trade with an AL team.

    Esteban Loaiza — Well, he was good in 2003. I don’t like this one much either, but there is potential there and after his disastrous tour of duty with the Yankees he’s not going to be very expensive. Just a thought.

    Jarrod Washburn, John Lackey, Ramon Ortiz — If the Angels do make a big free-agent pitching signing (or trade for the Big Unit) one of these guys will likely be dealt.

    Derek Lowe — Maybe. He was terrible this year, and Red Sox fans tell me that he was never all that great. However, he does lead the majors in groundball outs and was really hurt by the Red Sox’ shoddy defense.

  11. I think that the A’s would want more for Zito — and would get it, from someone — but Jurries is the type of player they’ve historically liked. I really don’t see that big of a difference between Zito and Hampton at this stage, except of course for The Contract.

  12. How about Backe, Berkman and Ensberg for Andruw and Smoltz and De Rosa????

    I think Matt Morris would be a very very very good ace with us. Leo would fix his “mechanical problems” and he is exactly what we need. A front of the rotation ace. He has been a little banged up but I think he can revive his career with the Braves.

    I like: Morris, Hampton, Wright, Thomson and Cruz

  13. Mac – I forgot to add that I agree with you 100% about Cappellan and he should adapt a fastball-slider-splitter repertoire. Do you think he could close??? I know this may sound crazy but do you think he could be this year’s Jason Frasor (Toronto)? I think we should trade Smoltzy and sign Drew to a long-term contract and maybe pick up someone like Steve Reed with the remaining cash. I can absolutely see Cappellan as a closer. He throws sooo hard. He reminds me of John Rocker when he throws.

  14. Maybe with the money we save from releasing Smoltzy we can re-sign Drew, sign Steve Reed and maybe even Billy Koch!! Him and Cappellan can handle the closing duties. I don’t doubt Leo can fix Koch. He, like Morris, is another guy who has “mechanical” problems. He needs a good pitching coach. He didn’t have this is in Florida nor with the ChiSox

  15. If Radke’s number falls below $8 million, he will for sure stay with the Twins. I live in Minny and it’s fairly clear he would like to stay up here and the Twins will probably match anything up to $9 million. I don’t know if I would want to go above $9 million per for him.

    Something about Clement I don’t like. I simply don’t think he can reach the elite level and I don’t think it has anything to do with physical ability. For some reason, he can’t seem to turn the corner. I would rather sign Wright for less money.

    I think Millwood would be a good calculated risk as long as the number is low.

    No to Benson and maybes for Morris and Loaiza. Esteban is the kind of pitcher that Bobby and Leo seem to dig. He’ll come down next year. Win 18-20 and get lit up in the playoffs.

    Pavano will be out of our reach and I’ve never quite understood the magical attraction of Vasquez. He’s good, perhaps very good, but people (especially Braves’ fans) speak of him with this awe I cannot comprehend.

  16. You probably could have said the same thing you did about Clement two years ago about Jason Schmidt. Schmidt is Clement’s best comp through Age 29; Schmidt was 31 last season. I mentioned in a comment over at BravesBuzz that I think there’s a 10-20 percent chance that Clement does in his thirties what Schilling did in his. Schilling was 52-52 when he entered his Age 30 season. I’m not saying he will — there’s probably at least as good of a chance he totally washes out — but Clement is a type of pitcher who often is better in his thirties than his twenties.

    What I like about the Vazquez possibility is that what the Braves did best this year was not give up home runs, and what has kept Vazquez from being an elite pitcher, by and large, has been a problem with giving up home runs. If Leo can keep Ortiz and Thomson from giving up too many, maybe he can do that with Vazquez. I think that he thinks he can. The question for me is if his struggles this year were Ed Whitson’s Disease or an injury.

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